Sparks get whomped

And my prediction pretty much came true yesterday — the Terminal Jive set was definitely the least of the shows in the series on all levels. Not that the band didn’t get in there and do it, but everything clearly felt a bit more functional all around — I’m almost surprised they didn’t speed up the songs to get through them more quickly!

Still, a number of fun touches — in honor of “When I’m With You” being the Maels’ huge French breakthrough single, Ron wore a beret and Russell made a few stage comments in said language, while “Young Girls,” definitely a ‘please don’t take these sentiments seriously’ number for the band, sounded pretty good live. Meanwhile, the encore of “Singing in the Shower” was a good chance for the band to acknowledge the passing of Fred from Les Rita Mitsuoko, while the world finally got a chance to see the ‘secret’ member of the Sparks team, John Thomas, on second keyboards — he’s worked with the band on keyboards and engineering and more since the mid-eighties and by default is the longest-serving member of the group-as-such besides Ron and Russell himself. Seemed like a friendly looking feller!

Anyway, tonight’s Whomp That Sucker, inaugurating the band’s ‘eighties phase’ for lack of a better word, where stripped down arrangements and hooks became the baseline and, more often than not, were handled brilliantly. If this was being held in LA these next few evenings would be the packed out nights and the band have already spoken about how they’re wondering what the UK crowd will be like for the next six shows, so we’ll see what the result is soon enough!

From here on in the drafts I’ll be publishing come pretty close to the final entries; after having written much more detailed earlier reviews Jay at Arthur noted things probably would need to be shorter, so I shortened my initial thoughts accordingly. As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

WHOMP THAT SUCKER

In ways, Sparks’s first album of the 1980s was an equivalent to their debut efforts at the start of the previous decade – based firmly back in LA with a three-piece rock band as their collaborators. This time around, they went ahead and recruited an entire group, the power-pop (and definitely Sparks-inspired) Bates Motel, consisting of guitarist Bob Haag, bassist Leslie Bohem and drummer David Kendrick. With Ron armed with a bank of keyboards to play around with – early digital synths galore, treated with the familiar hypercomplex melodic runs he enjoys – and Giorgio Moroder partner Mack handling production, the resultant Whomp That Sucker was a crisp example of Sparks placing themselves firmly in the New Wave that they had no small part in inspiring.

This eighties rock and roll version of Sparks in all was a much simpler and more direct one than those of earlier years – instead of frenetic performances and instant stop-start changes, the feeling here is steady riffing and straightforward rhythms, immediate but less astonishingly unique (though if anything, songs like “The Willys” indicated how Sparks was listening to bands that had followed in their wake like Devo and XTC). In ways, this is the sound of a ‘new’ group still finding its feet, just, and the end result is a bit uneven. Still, plenty of songs have the sensibility of Sparks at its most theatrical, such as “Where’s My Girl” and “That’s Not Natassia,” while Russell’s falsetto is as sweetly dramatic as ever, especially in the choral overdubs.

But it’s the in-your-face numbers that score the most here, such as the hyperactive smack of “Upstairs,” the absolutely hilarious “Tips for Teens” (“Don’t eat that burger/Has it got mayonnaise/GIVE IT TO ME!”) and especially “Funny Face,” with a gorgeous “When I’m With You”-style chorus anchoring the tale of a man so perfect in appearance he despairs of never being left alone, tries and fails to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge and lives a happy life from there after his appearance is permanently marred. This was the lead single, by the way.

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